As this is still among my first of many travel blogs to come in the next few years, I am still figuring out my writing format.
I have decided that the first part of the blog will be dedicated to my travel story. It is here that I will talk about things I saw and learned and felt and discussed during my time somewhere new. While I want to recommend to you all the places I think you should eat and drink and see, I also want to talk to you intimately about what it feels like to live in your learning zone – the place where you feel things like the weight of Syrian refugees that lay alongside the stone walls of a city, or the stunning release you feel when you see body types that look just like yours in both the historic architecture, as well as in the local bakery, or what it feels like to talk to people who have never been where you are from, and what they think of the world. Those experiences, while not places to eat or drink, are the most important moments that I hope to share with you from my time traveling. I hope that if you too get the chance to travel, you feel invited to experience those moments deep within yourself as well. And if you don’t get that chance, which many people do not, I hope that my experience may help you to make sense of the world just a little bit more by the end of my stories.
The second half of the blog will be dedicated to mostly food and sites + travel tips. I encourage you not to skip the travel stories, but should you be here just for my travel advice, you will want to scroll to the second half of the travel posts.
Brussels is a quaint city characterized by cobblestone and gothic style buildings that go on for blocks on end. The magnitude of the city and its buildings stand in clear contrast to the natural beauty outside the edges of the city.
It was this that created sheer havoc trying to get into the city center where I was staying. The buildings, tall and dense, successfully manage to demand your attention, because they make cell reception between the buildings nearly impossible. Like many places in Europe, the cobblestone streets are both pedestrian walking paths, and driving roads, which are blocked off by steel barriers that pop up out of the road at various and unlisted hours, that Google doesn’t know how to plan detours for, so your map will insist you drive somewhere that you cannot, while refusing to reroute because of the lack of signal. For a foreign traveler, the combination of lacking a functional map, the sheer amount of bodies walking in front of your car without paying attention, and a manual car with the propensity to burn oil in low gears, is actually quite stress inducing.
We did however finally manage to find parking, several blocks from where we were staying, and managed to drag our bag across the cobblestone without breaking a wheel, to make it to our third floor AirBNB down a little, noisy, back alleyway. The alleyway was characterized by laundry hanging on lines several feet above the narrow pass way that ran between two major city streets, like celebratory ribbons catching the tunneled breeze. It was noisy and dirty and kind of made me want to take up smoking for a day while sitting in the window reading something from Hemmingway. The permanent parties, close in proximity to one another, yell at each other, up or down from the windows.
Walking around Brussels, it is clear that the city is characterized by travelers from all over the world. The streets are narrow, the cobblestones uneven, and the mood a mix of chaos and wonder. The streets are filled with the young and the old, and the smell of yeast and chocolate and stale water from the nightly street cleaners. Brussels seems to be in a constant state of celebration, so the streets get cleaned each evening.
For those that want to see as much of the city as possible, I would highly recommend using the Lyft scooters, that are littering the city. I was able to see so much that I would not have been capable of seeing on foot. I was able to get to the top of the city and sit on the wall of the justice center with a beer, and go through all of the little nearby neighborhoods and parks. I was able to go to brunch in a neighboring town, and see all of the palaces and several churches. As a fair warning, the scooters do work on cobblestone, but your brain (and vision) is in for a really good boggle. Do it anyway. Also, in Europe scooters are held to the same standard of liability as a car, so you better not hit another car or human – fair warning. This is how my husband and I got around.
What I think I was taken back by the most was the sheer number of Syrian refugees that laid with children cradled to their bodies, sleeping in crooks of buildings and tucked between bushes and walls as a way to ward off the wind. This was my first experience seeing refugees, and to be honest, I know better than to stop and stare, but there was something uniquely challenging for me to see – a mother laid with a baby to her breast, dirty and cold, leaning up against an ancient church.
I have always had a complicated relationship with church, made no easier by the scene of a woman nursing her child while leaned against the cold and unforgiving stone walls of a cathedral. I grew up being told that it was where we go to find God…but I never found God there, and I am led to believe, neither did this woman. But neither my complicated relationship with church, nor the scene I was looking at, nor the many refugees that were tucked into invisible cracks in the city, to me at least, disproves God. What it proves is the failure of human to love and understand and protect one another, as God wants us to do.
As a believer myself, I was challenged by what I saw. It was such a distinguished sight…a nursing mother leaning quietly up against the house of God. It was challenging because I didn’t entirely know how to make sense of the scene. I didn’t know if I was challenged by the culture or the spiritual contrast or provoked deep within myself to consider my own position in the world, juxta positioned to this woman and her child, and God herself.
Though I do not know what the existing church body does in the community and I hesitate to assume, as I am only passing through, what I felt at that moment, is that maybe God’s greatest sanctuary is not the ornate concrete walls of a cathedral, but the space we create in our hearts for God herself, and what we choose to do with that love as we love each other.
What I knew in that moment, as I looked on and I searched for bits of a foreign language in my head that did not exist, to tell her I was sorry for starring and thought she was beautiful and apologize for all the apathy I had ever had towards her life while living in my far away land – is that it is important to feel displaced in your emotions when you look at tragedy. And I can tell you now from my brief time in Brussels, that if that small encounter with hidden bodies tells us anything, the Syrian refugee problem is a fucking tragedy. Feeling displaced by tragedy is the first step to claiming responsibility for our role in this world. And more importantly, it is not just enough to feel it, but we too must be moved by it, into that place of disposition, where we find what we can do, and take up our part. Not the whole part, but the part that we can do. But the worst damn thing you can do when you look at tragedy, is feel small by it. I wanted to speak and couldn’t, and I wanted to be to listen and couldn’t, so I watched. I don’t know what to do yet with what I am seeing. Like you, I wish those answers were simple. Until I know what to do, I will continue to witness. And to not turn away…that is a really powerful first step.
And there will be more to see. This was only one woman and only one child of so many, many refugees lining the walls of only one city.
One of the coolest things I got to take part in in Brussels, was talking to the people. While we were in Brussels we wandered into a small batch family brewery. There are many of these along any number of the streets, and tucked into various alleyways. In this particular brewery sat a couple from Australia, a woman from Italy, a man from Brussels, and myself. Each of us came from different faith practices, different countries, and different backgrounds. We sat and drank, sipping beer and eating cheese and talking about the condition of the world. I posed a question to the group as the night went on, “What is the most important thing to fix in this world first, that would have the greatest impact on the rest of the world?” It was interesting to hear answers of improving air quality, and practicing yoga, and improving medical practices and protections. It was fascinating to be a part of a bunch of strangers coming together and passionately discussing the way of the world over beer and cheese.
For the record, I think if we want to get anything done in this world, this moment represents the most important things that we can do to change the world around us. We must be willing to sit amongst people unlike ourselves, and listen to what they are telling you. About their lives. About their fears. About their experiences. About their values. And we must listen without simply listening to respond. And we must sit without blaming one another. We must simply sit. And listen. And eat the cheese. And speak truthfully when it’s your turn to speak up.
It would have been easy for me to walk away from this situation. Frankly, the bar doubled as a house of Satanic worship. My soul doesn’t belong in a house for that type of worship. But I walked in. First seeking a drink, realizing quickly what I had walked into once I had arrived. I stayed to listen and talk to the people. I stayed, because at the end of the day, our fight is not with one another. Our fight, the one we are all fighting, regardless of spiritual persuasion, is the one where we make the world a better place. Whatever that means to you, and regardless of what you believe, I can tell you starts by listening to everyone else, so that you are better prepared to be a part of that fight, and so that you are better equipped to understand what you want to change dynamically before you change it. I am telling you, cheese and listening can change the world.
And on that note, let me tell you where the best cheese and beer in Brussels is.
Rue de Savoie 68, 1060 Saint-Gilles, Belgium
(+32 2503 60 68)
My number one recommended place to eat while in Brussels is Moeder Lambic. This quaint little beer bar serves brunch on Sunday’s, and it is a five-course meal TO DIE FOR. For only roughly 20€ per person, our breakfast featured breads with jam and cheese and duck, baked eggs over caramelized onion, fresh tomato soup, sage pork and potatoes, and seasoned watermelons. To top it off, our breakfast came with a champagne for me, and beer for my husband. The food was absolutely amazing, a truly diverse culinary experience, and the environment is truly lovely.
Café Charbon is my top recommendation for drinks and finger foods. It’s a good stop at any point during the day, but the evening is buzzing with chatty people and yummy snack boards and really good drinks. It’s a hip little place with good service, and seems to be really popular with the LGBTQA crowd. If that’s where the LGBTQA crowd congregates, I want to be there too.
Travelers Tip: You can walk around with open containers in Brussels. I would recommend getting a couple of beers from any one of the little convenience stores down any number of alley ways and walk with a drink. It’s cheap and it’s fun to keep exploring with a beverage in hand, and there are some really interesting beers to be tried from any number of bottles from the little stores. I tried a peach number that was really quite odd but fun to experience.
There are several places to get Belgium chocolates, but I really loved Leonidas. There were several chocolates I had never heard of, the prices were good, and the treats definitely didn’t disappoint. While you can stop at any number of beautiful chocolate shops along any of the roads, this was my favorite. It made me think of the movie Chocolat with all the jars of sweet treats, and so many different types of people who had come together momentarily in the pursuit of cocoa and nothing else. I now understand why Beligum chocolate has gained such a reputation.
Travelers Tip: While you may be inclined to eat in the Grand Place (Grokt Markt) Square, I wouldn’t recommended it. You will pay a very high price for the experience of eating in the square. My husband and I ate there the first night because we really wanted the experience, but as a fair warning, it’s by far the most expensive area to eat. The food was great, but there was also really good food along any given alleyway in Brussels for a lot cheaper.
Restaurant Zain Shaam
This corner restaurant is run by a Syrian family, and the food is authentic and absolutely delicious. I had never had Syrian food before, but it’s now among my favorite types of food. The plates are large and served family style, and we took extra dishes to go because we loved it so much. The family is friendly, the environment is light and airy with all of the windows, and the food is absolutely delicious. I would highly recommend you do not miss this stop while in Brussels.
Grokt Markt / Grand Place
Even if you don’t eat here, I would take a moment to soak in the architecture. It’s absolutely stunning. A few of my featured pictures come from the square. It’s always full of people, but if you go at night it is relatively quiet and fun to look at in the shadow of the night.
Saint Michael and Saint Gudula Cathedral
As you know my favorite things to see are the cathedrals, and this one was stunning. I spent the better part of an hour in awe of the sheer craftsmanship that went into this historic building. The spaces dedicated to reflection and meditation where truly unparalleled, and the building is full of small details that are illuminated in rich colors cast from the stained-glass windows. The choir was singing in the background, which truly made the experience introspective.
Travelers Tip: If you are going all over the city, or even if you aren’t, don’t wear stupid shoes. Learn to love your sneakers with a cute outfit. You knees and back will thank you. The streets of Brussels are no joke. Also, I would highly recommend closed toe shoes. The streets are notably dirty.
Eglise Notre-Dame du Sablon
This church sits across the alley from Café Charbon and though small in size, was truly lovely to see. The church needs quite a bit of work on the inside, as years of aging have taken its toll on the interior, but seeing the cracks brings reality to the fact that these historic sites need us to help keep their history alive. If the doors here are open, I would highly recommend stopping in for a few quiet minutes.
Palais de Justice
This is one of the things I HIGHLY recommend you go see while you are there. The Palais de Justice sits high above the city, allowing you to see over the whole city scape. The Palais is being renovated, but the architecture is worth gazing at. Better yet, there is a beer stand with reclined hammock chairs not far from the building, so you can enjoy the view, and the building, with a beer in hand. I am a little bias because I love legal buildings (nod to graduate studies with a legal focus) but this one is truly stunning. This was one of my favorite memories from my trip.
Royal Palace of Brussels
My main picture was taken in front of the Royal Palace of Brussels. It was truly a magnificent site. There are occasional tours that can be planned through any number of the visitor centers around the city, but we were not able to take a tour, though I would have liked to.
Travelers Tip: It is important to do a little research before you go and look at historic architecture. As I looked at the building, I kept in mind that the money from many of these stunning structures was produced off of the backs of the Congolese centuries before. Remembering that these structures came at a high price, off of the backs of many subjugated people and cultures gives new weight and meaning to the architecture.
Brussels Town Hall
This beauty is the tallest building in the center of Grokt Markt. We didn’t take a tour because we were limited on time, but I would highly recommend if you have the opportunity, to plan a walk through. The building interior, from the little that we could see, was as stunning on the inside as it was on the outside. The picture of me in Grokt Markt above has the Brussels Town Hall in the background.
Mannekin Pi Statue
This is just a short walk from the center of Grokt Markt, and to be honest, I don’t entirely understand the appeal, but this statue is a really big deal in Brussels. I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend taking a few minutes to go see the statue. It was fun to see that the peeing statue was dressed in different outfits from around the world throughout the weekend as we walked by him.
Unfortunately, this was closed for construction when we went to go see it, but it really was an unusual site to see. Constructed in 1957 for the World Fair, the atom is enormous. If I ever pass back through Brussels, this will absolutely be one of our stops. Tickets can be purchased online.
Stop at a Flea Market
The Los Marolles Flea market is famous in Brussels, but we passed several during our time in the city. I would highly recommend you stop and take a look at the curious little markets. We found some really neat things while we were there.
When I left the states I really thought that Uber was a service you would find readily available around Europe. It is not. And to be honest, the streets of Brussels change at different hours by way of metal bars that pop out of the ground that turn streets that were driveways in the morning, into pedestrian walkways in the evening. I would highly discourage traveling by car. Park your car and leave it there.
What I would do is get the Lyft app. My husband and I traveled via the scooters all weekend, and not only was it one of our favorite memories, it was really quite affordable. Plus, we saw way more with the scooters than we would have on foot. Don’t worry, they are really inexpensive and they are all over the city, so they are easy to access. Be mindful that if you hit a car or pedestrian, you are as liable as you would be if you were driving a car and got into an accident.
Happy Travels! See you in a few weeks with a post about Seeing Amsterdam!